Trump and Biden, Biden and Trump. Are we ever going to move on? It’s like the country is stuck in an endless doom loop from 2020: a surging COVID pandemic, an economic contraction, and an ongoing democratic crisis, which the unrepentant and so-far-unpunished former President unleashed with his refusal to accept his election defeat. Those are this week’s headlines in Washington—and, it seems, every week’s.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump returned to the capital for the first time since reluctantly slinking away from it on January 20, 2021, when he became the first President in a hundred and fifty-two years to refuse to attend his successor’s swearing-in. He arrived, to the cheers of a crowd of his former advisers and hangers-on, at the America First Policy Institute, founded by a collection of his Administration’s appointees to keep the Trump banner flying. Not surprisingly, he peddled lies and calumnies just as frequently as ever. In his speech‚—a reprise of his dystopian “American carnage” Inaugural Address—he claimed that the country had become a “cesspool of crime,” subject to “blood, death, and suffering on a scale once unthinkable” because of Joe Biden and the Democrats, and he promised “an all-out effort to defeat violent crime in America” if he were returned to power. The fact that violent crime was higher in 2020, after four years of Trump in the White House, than it was in 2016 did not register. Nor did it matter that Trump’s speech consisted of the same tired law-and-order rhetoric that he had campaigned on against Biden, in 2020. That election will not be over until Trump says it is, which of course he never will.
Biden, meanwhile, had another agonizing up-and-down news cycle, the kind that has abounded during his Presidency. There were tantalizing glimmers of progress, such as a surprise breakthrough deal, on Wednesday, with Senator Joe Manchin to proceed with some of the Administration’s social-spending and climate initiatives, and the passage, on Thursday, of the bipartisan CHIPS Act, which provides billions of dollars to bolster domestic semiconductor manufacturing. There were also crushing reminders of the country’s grim reality, underscored by an announcement, on Thursday, that the U.S. economy, already battered by the highest inflation rates in four decades, shrank for the second consecutive quarter. The usual term for that is a recession, and it is all but impossible for Presidents, regardless of how malign or dangerous their opponent, to escape from the political blowback from one.
No matter, Biden insisted, at an afternoon dialogue with C.E.O.s on Thursday, one of several appearances meant to gloss over the day’s bad news: “We see signs of economic progress, as well.” Earlier in the day, he reeled off the good indicators, for those who might have failed to see them: record-low unemployment, increasing foreign investment, that deal with Manchin—which, should the legislation pass, will do everything from cutting deficits and curbing inflation to tackling climate change and reducing drug prices. “That doesn’t sound like a recession to me,” the President cheerily concluded. Optimism in the face of long odds has always been one of Biden’s signature assets as a politician.
So is this week a preview of what we are to be consigned to for the next couple of years—an endless round of duelling speeches and duelling realities from our forty-fifth and forty-sixth Presidents? The contrast is as familiar as it is painful. Think of Biden, on Wednesday, wearing his aviator sunglasses against the Rose Garden glare, announcing that he had fully recovered from his recent bout with COVID and earnestly lobbying the public to get their vaccines and boosters and at-home tests. What a difference from Trump in 2020, who, after being rushed to the hospital with the virus, returned triumphantly a couple of days later to the White House, where he theatrically ripped off his face mask, in defiance of public-health measures, and proclaimed himself some kind of superman.
In Trump’s address this week, the former President sounded no different than when he was the incumbent President, rambling through his greatest hits, including promises to build the wall and take on both evil gangs like MS-13 and “crazy” socialist Democrats. It was what passed for a policy speech in Trumpworld, but it was really all about raw emotions: fear, loathing, and, of course, feeding his own enormous ego. “I came out very good,” he said, in explaining how he heroically disagreed with his scientific advisers, such as Anthony Fauci, at the start of the pandemic. “It’s pretty amazing. Some of the things we have done are pretty amazing.”
Biden, for his part, generally sticks to policy in his policy speeches. His is a technocratic party, the voters of which care about the nuances of government action and for which wonkery is an asset. He speaks more in bullet points than Trumpian exclamation points. “It’s a godsend,” Biden said, of the deal Manchin surprised the capital by agreeing to, after a year-long negotiation with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The President went on to explain, “It’s often how bills get made, by compromises.”
The country, however, is crying out for something different: we’re-on-the-wrong-track numbers are off the charts. Both Biden and Trump have abysmal approval ratings and astronomical disapproval ratings in the polls. Young people—the future—are particularly disaffected. And yet Biden and Trump, both pushing eighty, remain the titular heads of their respective parties. Both threaten to run again in 2024. Trump, consumed by his own destructive lies about the last election, wants the Republican Party to remain his personal revenge play. Biden appears to be convinced that he is the only one who can beat Trump. The result is that, in a time of inarguable crisis, the grip of the gerontocracy remains strong in both of America’s political parties.
Strong, yes, but perhaps not unbreakable. Polls in recent weeks have, in fact, shown signs of Trump’s support softening within his own party—perhaps a consequence of the House select committee’s hearings exposing his role in inflaming the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Trump remains an overwhelming front-runner for the Republican Presidential nod, if he chooses to seek it—and the informed speculation is that he will—but hope springs eternal among his critics both inside and outside the G.O.P.
In a couple of recent focus groups I listened to of Trump voters in Washington State and Wyoming, hosted by the anti-Trump Republican Sarah Longwell, only a single 2020 Trump supporter out of fourteen wanted him to run again. That’s a stark contrast to dozens of focus groups over the previous seventeen months in which, as Longwell wrote in The Atlantic, at least half of respondents hoped Trump would go for it. “I think it’s time to move on,” an Arizona participant in another group said. One in Ohio said, “I do not want four more years of ‘orange man bad’ and everybody screaming about every time he tweets. . . . I don’t want four more years of that.”
For all the nascent signs of Trump fatigue among Republicans—an important factor, in my view, for his defeat in 2020—it’s also clear that Democrats aren’t thrilled with Biden as their standard-bearer for 2024. The cratering of the current President’s approval ratings, after all, is because Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have become disillusioned with him.
And that might be the most bipartisan thing about this dispiriting year. A recent Times focus group found Trump voters and Biden voters spitting mad at one another—and completely in agreement that neither Trump nor Biden should run again for President. So take that, doom loop: America is done with 2020, even if Donald Trump and Joe Biden are not. ♦